CSU Channel Islands students seek public opinion on drones

by Chris O’Neal

Have an opinion about drones? California State University, Channel Islands, wants to hear it.

The Aerial and Aquatic Robotic Research Group and undergraduates from Channel Islands’ Introduction to Remotely Piloted Systems class have opened up a public survey to gather opinions and attitudes regarding unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly referred to as drones. The survey seeks to measure opinions on a wide range of UAV uses by local law enforcement, movie studios and universities, as well as to gauge public feelings on their usage.

Environmental Science and Resource Management Associate Professor Sean Anderson, Ph.D., says that patents are being filed at a fast pace for new and improved UAVs for use by filmmakers, university students and more, and that CSUCI is leading the way in teaching students how to operate them.

“We are San Francisco in 1850 with all kinds of Easterners daily arriving at our docks wanting and expecting to strike gold. But there is far too little perspective on this technology and industry,” said Anderson of CSUCI’s role in the UAV frontier. Anderson says that several of his students have found lucrative careers immediately after graduation, thanks to their training in the field.

Florida lawyer and legal scholar Jonathan Rupprecht, who specializes in Federal Aviation Administration issues and drone integration into the National Airspace System, says that CSUCI is becoming a trailblazer when it comes to drones and their operations.

“This data will be informative to help build the foundation of an interdisciplinary drone education program, but not only that, it will help future students for decades to come,” said Rupprecht.

Anderson is in Louisiana this week with a group of students, surveying wetlands outside of New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, CSUCI students who were interested in helping raised $15,000 to assist in the initial rebuilding operations. In following years, the students donated time building new homes and creating community gardens. Now, Anderson and his students are using drones to map areas invaded by non-native plant species for targeted restoration.

The drones make use of LIDAR, light detection and ranging, to create three-dimensional maps that can be used by local agencies. Over 10 years, Anderson says, the maps have shown where native plants have flourished and where attention should be focused.

Anderson says that by taking part in activities that benefit the community, the opinions about UAV usage can be improved.

“We have to make sure we’re seen as a benefit to the community, seen as a resource,” said Anderson. “CSUCI is a leader in this community, not just for us, but for the public as well.”

Part of that effort will include providing workshops not only for students but for professionals, too. UAV flying safety, a professional class for consultants, a course on three-dimensional mapping and more are ideas coming in the near future.

CSUCI’s UAV program required that safety measures be taken before it could take off, however. After the school received two drones via a donation in 2014, the Board asked that a policy be written in order to assure that the drones would be used safely and effectively. It took a year, but when Anderson and his partners were finished, he found that the new policy wasn’t just a first for the school, but for schools statewide.

An oversight committee known as the Unmanned Systems Board now vets prospective projects of the school’s drones before they are approved for teaching or for research. Included in the policy are safety measures and steps to assure that the privacy of individuals isn’t breached during drone operations — a policy that was created to address concerns that have made headlines in recent years.

“If we accidentally do something that could be a violation of someone’s privacy, that information is immediately gotten rid of so that we’re not doing anything untoward,” said Anderson. Flying over homes, for example, means the data is destroyed. “People will have confidence if they see us flying they will know its all good.”

Currently, Anderson instructs anywhere from 10 to 15 students. The survey will be a yearly undertaking, partly conducted through face-to-face interviews in Los Angeles, Ventura and Santa Barbara counties and partly online. The results will be used to shape course instruction and to answer questions that students may have on how to address the needs of the community.

The survey will be live until April 15 and can be taken online by visiting http://bit.ly/1UtrURG. For more information on the Aerial and Aquatic Robotic Research Group, visit www.csuci.edu.